Women raise their voices
The Tablet | July 7, 2001
Religious who wanted to attend a Dublin conference to discuss women's ordination found themselves under heavy pressure from the Vatican. The Tablet's Dublin correspondent reports on the first meeting of Women's Ordination Worldwide.
An organisation bringing together campaigners from all over the world • favour of ordaining women met in Dublin for the first time last weekend. The delegates to the first-ever conference of Women's Ordination Worldwide, or WOW, were mainly Catholics, but other denominations were also represented. Gathered in University College Dublin, the delegates, from 26 countries, made an impressive and colourful gathering, but the most significant part of the event was what happened behind the scenes.
First, there was the case of the would-be keynote speaker on the first night, Aruna Gnanadason of the World Council of Churches (WCC). In mid-May the organisers announced that Gnanadason would not be able to attend. The reason given was that the WCC didn't want to interfere in the internal affairs of the Catholic Church. But one of the conference organisers, Soline Vatinel, told the Irish Times: "The unofficial reason was that the Vatican said it would withdraw from commissions involving the WCC if Ms Gnanadason spoke at the conference." Some observers suggested that Orthodox Churches who are members of the WCC were also unhappy about her participation. In any case, her slot was instead filled by a Jamaican-born London vicar, the Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, while the text of Gnanadason's undelivered speech was circulated to conference participants.
Talk of Rome wanting to suppress the conference may initially seem far-fetched, but consider the cases of two other participants, the English Notre Dame sister, Myra Poole, and the American Benedictine sister, Joan Chittister.
A former president of the American Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Joan Chittister is the author of more than 20 books, and just a month ago received an honorary doctorate from the Catholic Theological Union. She spoke to reporters after her address and explained a little of the background. Before the conference, the Vatican Congregation for Religious contacted her superior, informing her that there should be "no participation" by religious in the Dublin conference. Claiming that she hadn't come to Dublin to defy anybody, she said that she and the sisters in her community believed that "what damages the communion of the Church is the loss of discussion and participation in the development of ideas".
The support of her sisters in the Benedictines of Erie, Pennsylvania, was signifi cant, illustrating perhaps the more dispersed nature of authority in monastic orders. Before the conference, the prioress of Erie, Sr Christine Vladimiroff, said that Sr Joan had the "support and prayers" of the community. Soline Vatinel believes that it is "remarkable and unprecedented" for a religious congregation publicly and unanimously to demonstrate solidarity with a member in conflict with church authority. During the conference itself, when Sr Joan was introduced, both she and her community were given a sustained standing ovation. She was in feisty form, saying that her order had been around for 1,500 years, surviving world wars, plagues and persecutions. "We won't let a little letter from Rome get us down", she exclaimed.
The treatment of Sr Myra Poole appears to have been harsher. Like Joan Chittister, she is no new arrival to the women's ordination campaign. Though not scheduled to speak at the conference, Myra Poole is in fact the current co-ordinator of WOW, and was the only religious on the steering group for the conference. She also organised bursaries to enable women from developing countries to come to Dublin.
Like Sr Joan, Myra Poole was not contacted directly, but through the superior of her order. In mid-May she herself went to Rome, and with her superior met officials of the Congregation for Religious. By midJune she still expected to be coming to Dublin, but the upshot of the meetings was that she was eventually instructed, under obedience, not to attend the conference and threatened with dismissal from her order if she did.
The late date at which the Vatican chose to intervene is curious, given that the details of the conference and its organisers have been in the public domain for a year. Sources close to Sr Myra say that this put an intolerable burden on her and that the struggle to choose between obedience to her superiors and her own deeply held convictions put her under enormous emotional strain. After much agonising, she withdrew. In the end, though, conscience did prevail, and she slipped quietly into the hall towards the end of Saturday afternoon's business, appropriately enough during a panel discussion with women from developing countries, for whom she had raised the funds to be present. It remains to be seen what disciplinary action may now be taken against these two sisters as a result of their participation in the conference.
This very theme of the Vatican's stand against people who question the Church's official teaching was taken up by Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mairead CorriganMaguire, who officially opened the proceedings. She described the Vatican's attitude as "dehumanising, demoralising spiritual abuse" and "an assault on the sanctity of a person's conscience".
John Wijngaards, who resigned from the priestly ministry because of Rome's attitude to debate on the question of women's ordination, cautioned delegates to argue not from an "equal rights" perspective, but from a theological and historical basis.
In a rousing and witty address, Joan Chittister, unbowed by the controversy surrounding her appearance, challenged the Catholic Church to renew the priesthood on the basis of a renewed discipleship. She warned that the Church must not only "preach" the Gospel, but that it must also "not obstruct" the Gospel, by excluding women from full participation. She received sustained applause and cheers when she claimed: "Men who do not take the woman's issue seriously may be priests, but they cannot possibly be disciples. They cannot possibly be 'other Christs'. Not the Christ born of a woman. Not the Christ who commissioned women to preach him. Not the Christ who took faculties from a woman at Cana. Not the Christ who sent women to preach resurrection to apostles who would not believe it then — and do not believe it now."
Delegates returned to their various countries buoyed up by the near-unanimous acceptance of resolutions calling for debate, support for theologians and religious under official pressure, and so on. Most of the people present want to stay within the Church, and indeed the only resolution to be rejected was one calling for Peter's Pence contributions to be withheld and redirected to women's ordination groups.
Forbidding debate and imposing harsh sanctions on those who disagree is not only unfair, according to Joan Chittister, it is also unwise. She draws parallels with the Church's • teaching on contraception, and claims that the lack of debate around the encyclical Humanae Vitae meant that people ignored all of it completely, neutering any potential it had to stimulate reflection on issues of life and sexuality. By not being able to discuss it, "people couldn't own it", she said.
The question of women's ordination is still festering in the Catholic Church. The delegates who gathered in Dublin last weekend are not going to stop talking about it. Intimidating those among them who belong to religious congregations will hardly serve any purpose other than to create pain, harden attitudes and deepen division.